The Middle East Channel

Building a police state in Palestine

"If we are building a police state — what are we actually doing here?" So asked a European diplomat responding to allegations of torture by the Palestinian security forces. The diplomat might well ask. A police state is not a state. It is a form of larceny: of people’s rights, aspirations and sacrifices, for the ...


"If we are building a police state — what are we actually doing here?" So asked a European diplomat responding to allegations of torture by the Palestinian security forces. The diplomat might well ask. A police state is not a state. It is a form of larceny: of people’s rights, aspirations and sacrifices, for the personal benefit of an élite. This is not what the world meant when it called for statehood. But a police state is what is being assiduously constructed in Palestine, disguised as state-building and good governance. Under this guise, its intent is to facilitate the authoritarianism which creates sufficient popular dependency — and fear — to strangle any opposition.

The transition from the lofty aspiration of statehood to a scheme intended to usher West Bank Palestinians into a new alleviated containment — a new form of remotely-managed occupation — is not some unfortunate error. The roots of this manipulation of the Palestinian aspiration into its opposite — cynically dressed up and sold as statehood — were present from the outset. Professor Yezid Sayyigh has shown how U.S. and EU rhetoric "promoting democratic development and the rule of law is pious at best, at worst disingenuous". Both America and Europe bear responsibilities for this betrayal.

The seed of this deception which was to grow into a new police state in the region was the US and European acquiescence to Israel’s self-definition of its own security needs — and by extension, Israel’s definition of the requirements for Palestinian security collaboration. This Faustian pact, which prioritized Israel’s security-led criteria as the boundaries for negotiations — above any principles of justice — set the scene for the inevitable inflation of Israeli demands of security collusion by the Palestinian leadership — demands on which America’s ‘war on terrorism’ poured fuel.

The hidden, and false, western assumption was that if a two-state solution was in the interest of the dominant party, all that the Palestinians needed to do was to establish that a stable two-state solution was available to Israel. And in the end, it would emerge simply because it was in Israel’s demographic interest to give it. On this false premise, the Abbas-led Ramallah leadership embraced security collusion comprehensively. The western state-building project was conceived simply with the aim of providing Palestinian efficiency in the delivery of security collusion, nicely wrapped in a discourse of security reform and good governance.  But the problem is that the underlying assumption — that Israel was going to give the Palestinians a sovereign state in its own interest — was false.  

If Palestinian state-building is understood as a pact by which Palestinian institutions are built and shaped to facilitate security-collusion — in expectation that this will cause Israel to see it to be in its own interest to give Palestinians a state — then the overall matrix of western policy becomes clear. It is a pre-requisite of Oslo and subsequent agreements that the PA should work with the IDF — "with the participation of US security officials" — to defeat and dismantle any opposition to this project, and, as Mrs Clinton reminded Mahmoud Abbas last year, this demand extends to Hamas — unless it should accept the Quartet’s conditions.

These principles are not new: they are long-established principles of American counter-insurgency dating back to the US campaign in the early 1900s against Filipino ‘rebels’ and were adopted in subsequent conflicts. This doctrine has combined the establishment of harsh, unaccountable security apparati to a ‘benevolency pacification’: Security strongmen evolve to control the business and financial sectors.

In the Palestinian context this pacification has come to mean something far more extensive than the original Oslo demand for collusion with Israel to dismantle and destroy Oslo’s opponents. Indeed, the concept is being used to create a politico-security and economic architecture and élite in order to implement a benevolency pacification. In return the elites receive significant material benefits and privileges. So successful has this political and security architecture been in normalizing the West Bank that the then US Assistant Secretary of State, hailed it as "the best Palestinian Authority government in history". 

These oligarchs dominate key political, economic and security positions, and in many instances own and direct key companies in the new Palestinian landscape. A recent expose by Reuters documenting "Washington’s growing role in the Palestinian private sector which is dominated by a small group of wealthy companies and investors linked by a web of cross-holdings", singled out Mahmoud Abbas’ two sons, both of whom have received contracts from USAID for millions of dollars, including one to "improve America’s image in the Palestinian Territories". Another oligarch — reportedly on the payroll of the CIA and Britain’s intelligence services — is Mohamed Dahlan, who, from his position as head of security in Gaza, oversaw the use of pitchforks at crossings and the oil monopoly established with the Israeli company Dor, which reportedly made him many millions of dollars. (Dahlan is currently under investigation by Fateh). Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s remark in a thank-you speech to Mrs Clinton on receipt of $150 million for the PA last November aptly summed up the general situation of the created dependency: "there is hardly any sign of visible progress on the ground today in Palestine that does not have the caring prints of USAID on it".

The security apparati being created, in tandem with a second-generation of monopolies and concentrations of economic power, have little to no domestic transparency or accountability. Effectively, final control rests with Israel, the CIA and other external intelligence services. Western diplomats and officials have described the relationship between the CIA and the two Palestinian security bodies responsible for most of the torture of Hamas supporters as being "so close that the American agency appears to be supervising the Palestinians’ work". In the wake of the Hamas 2006 election victory, funding for these security services increased, and continued to be off-balance sheet: it was supplied by western donors and their regional allies, covertly.

A major addition to this covert funding has been official funding for the so-called ‘Dayton Battalions’, a paramilitary forced trained and funded by the Americans and some Europeans under the former guidance of Gen. Keith Dayton — and who now number over 8,000 armed men. So successful have these battalions been — 2009 figures show a 72% increase in co-ordinated activities between Palestinian and Israeli forces — that even senior IDF commanders asked how many more of these ‘new Palestinians’ Dayton could generate, and how quickly?

The Dayton Battalion recruits have a single allegiance. Israel vets every recruit; the PA, the Jordanian government and a US database also approve each candidate. Israel notes the serial numbers of each and every weapon issued to Palestinian security forces — and maintains the right of veto on all equipment issued. Even the security forces’ performance is determined by Israel: as one Western diplomat explained, the main criterion is Israeli satisfaction: "If the Israelis tell us that this is working well, we consider it a success".

Across the board, donors — including the EU and the UN  and of course the US — are financing and implementing the construction of the infrastructural matrix for the security sector — including prisons (the EU is providing the bulk of funding for 52 prisons — "more prisons than schools" a security analyst told me during a recent visit to the West Bank), new security facilities and camps in 8 Palestinian cities (each intelligence agency has its own detention center in each town), an academy and a host of training colleges, security force barracks and other facilities.* The principal target for this security infrastructure has been Hamas. Campaigns ostensibly to re-establish public order have provided the cover to clamp down predominantly on Hamas: Palestinian human rights groups have documented over 10,000 supporters of Hamas being arrested by the PA security forces since 2007. The current police/security-to-population ratio in Palestine — 1:80 — is not only one of the highest in the world, but is also financially unsustainable.

Torture by Palestinian security forces of opposition detainees, mostly Hamas, is common: "At the very least", notes a Western diplomat, "US intelligence officers were aware of the torture, and not doing enough to stop it". Anyone with supposed Islamist tendencies is denied work, or sacked from the public sector (since employment — as well as holding a position on any civil society board — requires a good conduct certificate issued by the security services).

General Majd Faraj, Commander of West Bank General Intelligence Service summarized, in a joint liaison meeting with the IDF, his vision: "There is no rivalry between us…we have a common enemy…there are no more games. Hamas is the enemy. We have decided to go to war against it…there will be no dialogue…You made a hudna (truce) with them. We didn’t".

The detailed security objectives, which according to some sources have been approved by Mahmoud Abbas (and who reconfirmed his commitment to these principles last month, despite his own conflicting record on the issue) in conversation with former senior Israeli security officials, are contained in an annex to the Geneva Initiative. They include the de-militarization of the PA, limits to its weapons holdings, and an Israeli presence in the non-militarized Palestinian state and the deployment of one Israeli and three multi-national infantry battalions in the Jordan Valley–purportedly for 36 months. It also envisages Israeli involvement at the Jordan and Egyptian border crossings and Israeli overflights of Palestinian territory.

In addition, Salam Fayyad has proposed to the Israeli Defence Minister that the number of Palestinian West Bank police stations be doubled, and that Israel reduce the number of roadblocks contingent upon Dayton forces assuming these tasks. Fayyad had already sought Israeli approval for the number of Dayton battalions to be doubled from 12 to 25.

Democracy, which was once a key component of the institution-building project, has all but disappeared. Having removed elected Hamas officials from office under the guise of faulty performance, and with accountable democratic bodies suspended and local elections recently postponed, the PA effectively operates an ad-hoc and unaccountable legislative process: the rule of law is administered by decrees issued by a President whose own legitimacy is contested. Abbas’ official mandate ended in January 2009 and the Prime Minister and cabinet are appointed by the President, effectively operating with no constitutional basis.

In place of accountable institutions, Mahmoud Abbas has proposed the establishment of a new General Council — to be composed of 451 members. It would subsume Fateh’s Central Committee and Revolutionary Council, with all remaining members to be directly appointed by Abbas. According to credible reports, Abbas has already used a new committee in the PLO to approve decisions that he knew would be rejected by existing leadership bodies, which, as one analyst comments, "Effectively provides Abbas with the power to replace the current members of leadership bodies"; members are "effectively dependent on Abbas for their positions".

In the financial sector, the picture similarly is one of a lack of accountability: take, for example, the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF). Set up under the guidance of a number of US institutions in 2002, the aim of the PIF was to close the secret bank accounts from the Arafat era into which billions of dollars had been siphoned and to transfer the funds to the Palestinian treasury. Originally under the control of the Minister of Finance, and Arafat’s former economic adviser, Mohamed Rashid, Arafat’s secretive money-man, the board was to consist of representatives from the public and private sector, including 3 ministers. By 2004 it held $ 1 billion. But in the wake of the 2006 election, Abbas amended the PIF articles of association by decree: All public figures — including all ministers and Fayyad himself — were removed, and the PIF was subsumed into the PLO. Today, explains a former senior Palestinian official, "the board is reshuffled every few weeks according to the changing preferences of the very narrow circle in the Muqata’a that controls the PIF". It is not clear whether the amendments made by presidential decree were legal, but more importantly: "if the raison d’etre for setting up the PIF was to retrieve the outstanding accounts and reimburse the funds to the national treasury, as the World Bank and IMF called on Arafat to do, why are these institutions and the donor community at large now looking the other way?".

The classic components of a counter-insurgency strategy are clearly being worked out for Palestine: the establishment of a Palestinian élite committed to working to this American-(Israeli) plan, the establishment of security services whose only allegiance is to this pro-American élite, full-spectrum control over the economy, destruction of all opposition to the project, employment provision and foreign aid directed at the delivery of economic benefits to the population (‘improved quality of life’) sufficient to suggest at least a semblance of popular support in order to offset the odium of authoritarianism, and the financial dependency of the people on the élite.

This is the level to which statehood has descended. Full demilitarization — taken to the limit — has essentially become no more than occupation by another name. And it has in the process shut out any alternative attempts at nation-building and the mobilization of the Palestinian nation under the umbrella of a reformed PLO. But this, of course, is what the current paradigm has hoped to destroy.

*[Correction]: The author would like to offer sincere apologies to UNDP for wrongly stating that they were involved in funding the building of 52 prisons in the OPT in the original version of this article. It is in fact the EU which is funding the bulk of the prison-building project. While the UN Office of Project Services has built a number of prisons, UNDP is not involved in financing or building prisons in the OPT.

Aisling Byrne is Projects Co-ordinator with Conflicts Forum and is based in Beirut